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“Smiley Smile” is The Beach Boys album that nobody wanted, particularly not The Beach Boys' fans and critics. In 1967, when it came out, everybody was expecting and eagerly waiting for The Beach Boys and their mastermind Brian Wilson to come up with “Smile,” one of the greatest rock albums never to be. After all, “Good Vibrations” and its flipside “Heroes and Villains” that came out ahead of supposed issue of “Smile” were to be included in some version or other on that album. And that was definitely one of the best rock singles ever. If not the best.
“Smile” never materialized. The issue date was set, covers were ready, but nobody knew what shape or form the songs would take. Not even Brian Wilson, who went through a nervous breakdown that is affecting him up to this day.
Tales and legends were spun surrounding what went on, including the one that Wilson actually destroyed the master tapes that had been ready to go to the record plant. Eventually, decades later, Wilson–with the help of other musicians–came up with his approximation of what that album would sound like; a few years later, the then-reformed Beach Boys came up with all the tapes that were left from those sessions. But then, if that is what it was supposed to sound like, who knows…
What is certain is that instead of “Smile” came “Smiley Smile,” an album that was dubbed as a disaster from all those anticipating the announced grandeur of “Smile”. In retrospect, we got yet another The Beach Boys masterpiece.
Yes, a masterpiece. A fragile, quirky, subdued album, and yet, still a masterpiece. The number of albums with similar peculiar qualities, especially from that era, like Skip Spence’s album “Oar”. This former Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape member also made an album that has traits quite similar to “Smiley Smile” - it recorded his struggle with mental problems and losing hearing in one ear. Magnificently.
But in the long shadow that non-materialised “Smile” cast, Brian Wilson and all of The Beach Boys never got that kind of recognition for “Smiley Smile”. And they definitely should.
First of all, and even if that was all that was worthwhile on that record, it includes the single versions of both “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains”. The latter, which opens the album in the form presented, is probably the most succinct and effective version of that song. And “Good Vibrations” and its greatness do not need an additional explanation.
The only other tune that remained from the “Smile” sessions in any of its original shape and form is a great ditty called “Vegetables” (or “Veg-aTables”), that, as some legends state, includes carrot munching by an uncredited Paul McCartney, one of the greatest admirers of Brian Wilson’s work.
Two other songs were supposed to be on “Smile” - “Wind Chimes” and “Wonderful” - but, like the remaining tunes on the album, they were recorded as post-“Smile” sessions and, as revealed on the tapes later on, do not bear that much resemblance to the original versions.
Like the rest of the later recorded songs, “Wind Chimes” and “Wonderful” present a sincere picture of a crisis of a genius and the disintegration, both personal and within the group it brought about.
There is no attempt at to cover up anything, everything seems to be recorded at the spur of the moment, slapdash and sloppy, threatening to fall apart at any moment. Still, it is all sincere and beautiful and those ethereal harmonies that only The Beach Boys can come up with shine through, even within the instrumental “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter”, a title indicative of the mood the album came about.
The titles like “She’s Going Bald”, “Getting Hungry” and Whistle In” and the spontaneous laughter included in “Little Pad” are to be a joke, but with their quirky melodies and beautiful harmonies conjure something extraordinary.
No, this is not the “Smile” album everybody expected from The Beach Boys. Even with some songs cropping up on some later Beach Boys albums (“Cabinessence” on 20/20 and “Surf’s Up” on the album of the same title), or with the later recreations that album never surfaced. But that should not be a detriment to anybody to enjoy “Smiley Smile” as one of the most fragile and quirky albums in rock.